Dan Luu on how The People Involved in an Intervention can Increase its Effectiveness

by Anja Boskovic5 min read20th Nov 2021No comments

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This is a linkpost for  https://danluu.com/people-matter/

I recommend reading the entire post, but here I pulled out the stuff that was specific to EA. 

So far, we've talked about how treating individual people as fungible doesn't work for corporations but, of course, it also doesn't work in general. For example, a complaint from a friend of mine who's done a fair amount of "on the ground" development work in Africa is that a lot of people who are looking to donate want, clear, simple criteria to guide their donations (e.g., an RCT showed that the intervention was highly effective). But many effective interventions cannot have their impact demonstrated ex ante in any simple way because, among other reasons, the composition of the team implementing the intervention is important, resulting in a randomized trial or other experiment not being applicable to team implementing the intervention other than the teams from the trial in the context they were operating in during the trial.

An example of this would be an intervention they worked on that, among other things, helped wipe out guinea worm in a country. Ex post, we can say that was a highly effective intervention since it was a team of three people operating on a budget of $12/(person-day)6 for a relatively short time period, making it a high ROI intervention, but there was no way to make a quantitative case for the intervention ex ante, nor does it seem plausible that there could've been a set of randomized trials or experiments that would've justified the intervention.

Their intervention wasn't wiping out guinea worm, that was just a side effect. The intervention was, basically, travelling around the country and embedding in regional government offices in order to understand their problems and then advise/facilitate better decision making. In the course of talking to people and suggesting improvements/changes, they realized that guinea worm could with better distribution of clean water (guinea worm can come from drinking unfiltered water; giving people clean water can solve that problem) and that aid money flowing into the country specifically for water-related projects, like building wells, was already sufficient if the it was distributed to places in the country that had high rates of guinea worm due to contaminated water instead of to the places aid money was flowing to (which were locations that had a lot of aid money flowing to them for a variety of reasons, such as being near a local "office" that was doing a lot of charity work). The specific thing this team did to help wipe out guinea worm was to give powerpoint presentations to government officials on how the government could advise organizations receiving aid money on how those organizations could more efficiently place wells. At the margin, wiping out guinea worm in a country would probably be sufficient for the intervention to be high ROI, but that's a very small fraction of the "return" from this three person team. I only mention it because it's a self-contained easily-quantifiable change. Most of the value of "leveling up" decision making in regional government offices is very difficult to quantify (and, to the extent that it can be quantified, will still have very large error bars).

Many interventions that seem the same ex ante, probably even most, produce little to no impact. My friend has a lot of comments on organizations that send a lot of people around to do similar sounding work but that produce little value, such as the Peace Corps.

A major difference between my friend's team and most teams is that my friend's team was composed of people who had a track record of being highly effective across a variety of contexts. In an earlier job, my friend started a job at a large-ish ($5B/yr revenue) government-run utility company and was immediately assigned a problem that, unbeknownst to her, had been an open problem for years that was considered to be unsolvable. No one was willing to touch the problem, so they hired her because they wanted a scapegoat to blame and fire when the problem blew up. Instead, she solved the problem she was assigned to as well as a number of other problems that were considered unsolvable. A team of three such people will be able to get a lot of mileage out of potentially high ROI interventions that most teams would not succeed at, such as going to a foreign country and improving governmental decision making in regional offices across the country enough that the government is able to solve serious open problems that had been plaguing the country for decades.

Many of the highest ROI interventions are similarly skill intensive and not amenable to simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, but most discussions I see on the topic, both in person and online, rely heavily on simplistic but irrelevant back-of-the-envelope calculations. This is not just a problem limited to cocktail-party conversations. My friend's intervention was almost killed by the organization she worked for because the organization was infested with what she thinks of "overly simplistic EA thinking", which caused leadership in the organization to try to redirect resources to projects where the computation of expected return was simpler because those projects were thought to be higher impact even though they were, ex post, lower impact. Of course, we shouldn't judge interventions on how they performed ex post since that will overly favor high variance interventions, but I think that someone thinking it through, who was willing to exercise their judgement instead of outsourcing their judgement to a simple metric, could and should say that the intervention in question was a good choice ex ante.

This issue of projects which are more legible getting more funding is an issue across organizations as well as within them. For example, my friend says that, back when GiveWell was mainly or only recommending charities that had simply quantifiable return, she basically couldn't get her friends who worked in other fields to put resources towards efforts that weren't endorsed by GiveWell. People who didn't know about her aid background would say things like "haven't you heard of GiveWell?" when she suggested putting resources towards any particular cause, project, or organization.

I talked to a friend of mine who worked at GiveWell during that time period about this and, according to him, the reason GiveWell initially focused on charities that had easily quantifiable value wasn't that they thought those were the highest impact charities. Instead, it was because, as a young organization, they needed to be credible and it's easier to make a credible case for charities whose value is easily quantifiable. He would not, and he thinks GiveWell would not, endorse donors funnelling all resources into charities endorsed by GiveWell and neglecting other ways to improve the world. But many people want the world to be simple and apply the algorithm "charity on GiveWell list = good; not on GiveWell list = bad" because it makes the world simple for them.

Unfortunately for those people, as well as for the world, the world is not simple.

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